A few weeks ago, I went to Paris to meet some friends. As I expected, as soon as I stepped into the streets of Paris -- and especially as soon as I got into the Metro -- I had an immediate sense of the familiar; like going home.
Now I've read a lot of people say that Paris is overrated, that the Métro smells, etc. The thing is that Paris can't help but get overrated -- it's one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Naturally, it must have a whole lot of people recommending it, yet, like all cities, Paris has its particular character and advantages, which won't appeal to everyone. And, voilà, you have a recipe for a lot of people wondering what all the hype is about. Then, once you visit a few more European cities, perhaps you'll find one whose flavor suits you better, and you can show your sophistication as a traveler by picking a less obvious city to recommend to your friends back home.
It's a little like the Eiffel Tower itself. I remember, as a kid, wondering why the Eiffel Tower is so famous. It's not impressively tall compared to modern buildings, and it's just a steel framework like some sort of antenna. I figured (correctly) that you must just have to be there. It turns out that it's actually kid of pretty for an antenna -- and it's cool that you can see it from all over Paris, and it's fun to go up and see it towering over a huge plaza and park.
Personally -- as a kid and young adult -- I was skeptical about all the francophile hype. I don't know much about art history (or European history in general), so a trip to Europe was never really high on my priority list until I started learning to speak French (as an adult, in grad school). Then, when I first got to Paris, I was pleasantly surprised by how convenient the public transportation was. I could wander on foot or by Métro in any direction and always stumble upon something interesting. I was also surprised to learn how different a city can look from the way all the cities look in the US. Plus, the culture just exotic enough to be charmingly fun without being truly disorienting.
My first trip to Paris was magical -- I wished I didn't have to leave. And, since then, I've been back there so many times, with family and friends. So what if the Métro smells? It's a familiar smell now, and all of the crazy corridors with their shiny white bricks and their ad-posters all in French are like home.
Naturally, it has become increasingly obvious that a big part of the magic of France for me has to do with the amount of effort I put into learning French. It affects how I feel about the place, about the people there, and about myself. So I've recently started listening to some German recordings that are a translation of a series I used when learning French so many years ago. No matter how silly the story or how cheesy the music, I like listening to it at night -- it relaxes me -- because (for me) it's the sounds of success.
During this past visit to Paris, I loved hanging out with my friends, and I always love visiting art museums with people who know a thing or two about art.
Yet, perversely, I didn't love how all of this English-speaking made me feel like an outsider, not really part of the city. (It's a little crazy, I know, but back at my hotel -- if anyone asked -- I was from Switzerland, and I was ready to make it convincing with a few phrases of German, if necessary.) Two of the friends I was visiting, though, speak good German, and they were very polite about letting me subject them to some of my terrible German. And, while wandering around, I was occasionally reminded of Zürich, and stuff I like there.
At the end, I got back on the train and settled into a good book. And as soon as the train pulled into Zürich Hauptbahnhof, I had an immediate sense of the familiar. There's the big clock whose design matches my watch, the familiar poster-ads in German, the kinetic light sculpture and the giant flying lady hanging from the ceiling of the great hall of the train station. Then I got on the tram and sat back and enjoyed the sights as it squeaked and squealed its way to my apartment. There, I hugged my husband and sons, and thought: It's good to be home!